A recent study, published in The Journal of Nutrition, reports that excluding basic allowance for housing (BAH)—an allowance to offset the cost of housing when an active-duty service member does not receive government-provided housing—from gross income would increase Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) eligibility among active-duty military households that are at the highest risk for food insecurity.
In 2022, the U.S. Department of Defense released the first national estimate of the prevalence of food insecurity among active-duty military households. Reportedly, 24% of active-duty service member households experienced food insecurity at some point in the preceding year of the survey and of those 24%, 14% experienced low food security and 10% experienced very low food security, the more severe range of food insecurity where one or more household members experienced reduced food intake and disrupted eating patterns. SNAP is the largest federal food and nutrition assistance program and aims to reduce food insecurity for low-income households by providing monthly benefits to buy food. However, it is unknown how many military families qualify for SNAP benefits or are currently taking part in the program.
To bridge this knowledge gap, Giombi (RTI International) and colleagues explored how many more service members’ households, referred to as “SNAP units” would become eligible for SNAP benefits if the BAH was excluded from countable income in deciding eligibility. According to SNAP rules, SNAP units are defined as a group of individuals who live together and regularly buy food and prepare meals together, and therefore constitute a household unit for eligibility purposes.
The research team used data from the American Community Survey (2016-2020), which collects information on active-duty military families if they have been living at the sampled housing unit for more than 2 months. The annual survey provides nationally representative estimates on United States demographics, economics, housing, and social determinants. This information was combined with data on military pay and allowances to simulate changes in SNAP eligibility and poverty status with a BAH exemption.
Study results indicate that exempting service members’ BAH from gross income increases SNAP eligibility from 0.4% to 1.5% (a 263 percent increase in eligibility). This increase was primarily driven by SNAP units whose highest-ranking service member was from the non-commissioned officer ranks without dependents. Furthermore, the costs of implementing the BAH exemption were relatively small, with an upper bound of 0.4% to 1.3% increase in annual SNAP disbursements for fiscal years 2016-2020. It was also estimated that increased SNAP participation would decrease the poverty rate among military SNAP units from 8.7% to 1.4% (an 83.9 percent reduction in military poverty).
Exempting service members’ BAH from their gross income would likely increase SNAP eligibility and participation among military households and, in turn, reduce military poverty. This study highlights a policy option for increasing access to SNAP benefits for low-income military households. In addition to increasing access, eliminating the BAH from countable income would align SNAP income eligibility determinations with other public assistance programs.
This study was supported by the Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Giombi KC, Rabbitt MP, Karns S. Military Eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: Simulating the Exemption of the Basic Allowance for Housing from Gross Income. The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 153, Issue 9, September 2023, Pages 2726-2735, doi.org/10.1016/j.tjnut.2023.06.038.
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